The authorship question

Feb 18, 2022 | Scholarly publishing

No, we’re not talking Shakespeare here (that’s another topic for another day – and, for that matter, another blog). We’re talking about the surprisingly contentious issue of who gets to be listed as an author on an academic paper.

According to, an author is simply “A writer of a book, article, or document.” But does this simplistic definition apply to academia? I recently had a manuscript submitted to a journal I work on where the submitting author insisted that it had over 1,200 authors – using the above criteria, there is no way that anyone could even begin to argue that they all qualified as authors, not unless they took two words each.


So how do we define an “author”?

In the modern world of research where academic collaboration is often between teams rather than individuals, it can be surprisingly difficult to decide just who qualifies for that all-important co-author listing.

For example, if a group of five researchers conduct an experiment then two of them go off and write a paper based on the results; it would be highly unfair on the other three if only the two who physically wrote it were acknowledged for the work.

For this reason, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  4. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
Why does it matter?

In an article published in the Times Higher Education back in 2017, it was revealed that 77% of the respondents to their survey on authorship would support the introduction of mandatory statements on author contribution across the board, a policy which many publishers have now adopted. It was felt that “authors should be required to declare exactly what they contributed to published journal articles in a bid to boost transparency and stamp out authorship “abuse”.”

In order to progress, or even maintain, a career in academia these days, it is important that you are seen to be publishing research in respected journals. This can lead to situations where senior academics insist on being listed as co-authors on their juniors’ work, even when they had little to do with it. On the flip side, it is not uncommon for researchers to name a more prestigious (but uninvolved) colleague as an author to give their work a little more gravitas. We’re sure you’ll agree that neither of these practices are entirely fair.


What are editorial teams doing to help?

Authors submitting to online submission systems will be asked to enter contact details for their co-authors during submission. Precisely which details are requested will vary from system to system, but at the very least a name and working email address will be required. This is to ensure that all of the co-authors know that they’ve been listed as co-authors; in other words, the submitting author can’t just start naming well-known academics to make their paper look more appealing to the editor if the well known academics in question are going to be notified!

It is therefore important that we check new submissions to ensure that everyone listed within the manuscript file is also listed on the system – that way we know that we can get in touch with everyone who’s been listed as a co-author and nobody can be slipped in under the radar.

It is also important that we follow up on any “bounced” emails we receive. Generally, when a manuscript is submitted, an email will go out to all co-authors. If an email address isn’t working, the notification will usually arrive at the editorial office. It’s worth following up on – if the submitting author doesn’t have a current email address for one of their co-authors, it does beg the question of how closely they’ve been working together…